As a toddler, Zoe Goldszmidt rarely spoke.

She and her mother, Jennifer Goldszmidt, took trips to Bolton Hill’s community pool and watched the kids in the neighborhood cry out for attention as they played. “Mommy, mommy, look at me!” Jennifer remembers them screaming. Some parents rolled their eyes — but not her.

“I realized that we were on two different planets because I would have cut off my right arm to hear that from my daughter,” Jennifer said. Her 3-year-old was smart: a lover of puzzles with perfect musical pitch. But she refused to speak.

Doctors diagnosed Zoe with autism in the spring of 2004, in a moment her mother describes as both cathartic and terrifying. Though Zoe would learn to communicate, Jennifer still wondered about the kind of life her daughter could have as an adult. A search for that answer prompted the former Howard County public school teacher to open a bakery.

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Jennifer unveiled Zoe’s Just Dezzerts at 828 S. Charles St. in November. The Federal Hill storefront, named in honor of the Z’s in Zoe’s name and her penchant for sweet treats, provided the now-22-year-old with gainful employment. The business has since hired six other neurodivergent workers and has become an “autism-friendly” haven for the community.

The storefront in Federal Hill employs neurodivergent workers. (Matti Gellman)

“It’s really cool to have a business that’s so obviously [doing] more than trying to make money,” said Zac Blanchard, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association.

Inside the store, a “double Z” insignia hangs from a neon green wall next to a cubby filled with Just Dezzert merchandise: hats and mugs and multicolored T-shirts. The offerings were inspired by Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, a chain that employs over 400 disabled workers nationwide. While there are no plans to scale the business to such heights, Jennifer says the branding comes as part of a plan to make an impact, and one day, a profit.

“People are still learning about us,” she said.

Photographs of employees are framed with a few sentences introducing themselves as singer-songwriters, video game aficionados and college graduates. Electrical outlets for study sessions dot the lower half of each wall, and the books “Unmasking Autism” and “Sincerely, Your Autistic Child” are propped up on a shelf. Everything feels personal. The coffee menus are taped to the bakery’s fridge and scribbled with hearts onto a black chalkboard

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Some of the eatery’s most popular items, key lime pies and carrot cakes, were created using recipes passed down by Zoe’s father, co-owner Adrian Goldszmidt. The store’s food is made off-site by professional bakers from the Lincoln Culinary Institute of Columbia, one of whom is autistic. Each week, Jennifer transports the baked goods from the kitchen of Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church to her Federal Hill storefront.

Key lime pies are available for purchase. (Matti Gellman)

She hopes neurotypical customers will leave her shop understanding the person behind the disability, and not come to meet someone autistic. It’s a difficult balance for the business between raising awareness and creating a space with quality pastries where workers just happen to be neurodivergent, she said.

When guests walk in, Zoe, who works as a server, often greets them in a language other than English. It’s one of the perks of the job, according to her co-worker Heiko Spieker, who said he often shows up to work wondering what the language of the day will be.

Singing is rampant. On occasion, Zoe will burst into an a capella rendition of “For the First Time in Forever” from Disney’s “Frozen.” Co-worker Kamani Bautista, who is also autistic, previously joined her for a duet, in some cases with music he has written.

“I love interacting with people,“ Bautista said of his work at the storefront, which is also his first job. “I want my people to feel welcome when coming into the bakery.”

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From time to time, Zoe may struggle to open a box and Bautista may wrestle to slip on his gloves. But each of their jobs offers an opportunity to grow and take on new challenges — experiences that once seemed far-fetched to Jennifer.

She knew Zoe was capable of stacking boxes in the back of a store, like many of her friends. But starting at a young age, Zoe wanted to interact with people, despite many of her failed efforts.

Words did not come easily. The emotions she described often did not match her behavior, leading to interactions with others that felt disjointed. When her first therapist walked into the room, Zoe screamed until they left. Another therapist attempted to teach her sign language.

Zoe’s frustration left her feeling isolated. She struggled to make friends and dug her nails into her mother’s arm whenever a social scenario created anxiety. They switched schools multiple times, searching for the right program.

Jennifer describes their relationship like an onion; she is forever in the process of peeling back her daughter’s layers. Baking became a hobby the pair connected over, especially when it came to cookies. The practice offered a clear script to follow and a means for listening before reacting. To better understand her daughter, Jennifer used signals, like puffing out her cheeks, as a means of checking in on each other.

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Still, it was difficult. At one point, Jennifer hired up to seven therapists to help her daughter communicate. She took out a second mortgage on the house. They waited nine years to receive a state waiver, which helps pay for children’s services related to autism.

While the waiver kept the family from spending about $50,000 each year on assistance for Zoe, Jennifer no longer trusted that there would be some service or program able to help. The waiver would end as Zoe transitioned from high school into the labor force, and by then her mother needed a plan.

“We wanted something that could grow and develop, not just for Zoe, but for others with autism,” Jennifer said.

Photographs of Zoe's Just Dezzerts employees hang from a brick wall inside the space. (Matti Gellman)
Hats, mugs and multi-colored T-shirts with the Zoe's Just Dezzerts logo cover a cubby inside the eatery. (Matti Gellman)

The operation is limited — constrained by the size of the church kitchen, rent expenses, the cost of professional bakers and a staff that is largely part-time. Some neurodivergent employees are unable to drive and are reliant on the city’s MTA mobility service for transportation, which Jennifer said has led to issues with safety and staffing shifts. Producing at a higher volume has also been a challenge, Jennifer said, citing the store’s need to invest in specialty or larger baked goods to bring in more money. As of Tuesday, she’s losing “thousands of dollars” on the business each week. She still believes its a worthwhile investment.

More community events may help, she said. The Federal Hill Neighborhood Association plans to use the storefront as a space for residents to pick up their parking permits on Feb. 24. There are also karaoke every second Friday of the month, trivia nights and promotions, such as their Valentine’s Day deal, which calls on community members to participate in poetry readings for a free hot drink. Jennifer’s working toward adding art and baking classes, especially for neurodivergent neighbors. She dreams of one day creating a foundation called “Ze Difference” to provide grants to small businesses hiring neurodiverse employees.

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“There are days when I feel like we’ve made a horrible mistake,” Jennifer said of her decision to start the bakery.

“But that’s a fleeting thought. We need this to work. … I need there to be a business that is sustainable for my daughter, for people like my daughter, where neurodiversity is celebrated and appreciated.”